Years After Tragedy, Mother Claims Victory in New Rental Car Protections

Law requires companies to fix defects before putting recalled cars on the road.

June 1, 2016, 4:31 PM

— -- As of today, for the first time, federal law prevents rental car companies from renting out vehicles that are subject to safety recall until they have been fixed -- the result in part of a years-long campaign by the mother of two young women killed in a rental car that she says never should have been on the road.

"I'm proud of our efforts, I'm so grateful for the help of consumer advocates who rallied behind this," Cally Houck, mother of the late Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, told ABC News. "We all worked together and we didn't give up. We remained firm and committed."

Jacqueline and Raechel were 20 and 24 years old, respectively, when they were killed in 2004 when the Chrysler PT Cruiser they rented from Enterprise apparently began leaking steering fluid and suddenly caught fire before crashing into an oncoming semi-tractor trailer. As reported in a 2010 ABC News investigation, the car had been under a safety recall for the potential fire hazard, but was still rented to the sisters.

"I had never imagined in a million years that a company could rent a car that they knew was recalled," Cally Houck said at the time.

More than a decade later, Houck said she was thrilled that as of today, federal law will require companies to repair any vehicle that has been recalled because of safety risks before renting it out.

“When a family picks up a rental car on vacation, they should be able to expect it is free of any known safety defect,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement, calling the new law a "common-sense idea."

After Houck’s daughters’ car crash, the Houck family sued Enterprise, the company that had rented the girls the PT Cruiser, after the accident. After a lengthy legal fight, the company admitted negligence and was required to pay $15 million in damages.

In 2012, Houck started an online petition that called on Enterprise to drop its opposition to the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act, the original version of the bill that was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D.-California, and Chuck Schumer, D.-New York.

The petition quickly garnered signatures from over 100,000 people, and by the end of the year, Enterprise, the largest rental car company in the U.S., joined Hertz, Avis, Dollar, Thrifty and National in a pledge not to rent out any recalled cars.

"It was a long campaign to try to wake up the rental car companies," Houck said.

In 2013, Houck testified on Capitol Hill in support of the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act.

"Every provider of rental cars, whether from a big rental car company, or a used car dealer, should be required to repair unreasonably dangerous defects before those cars are rented to the public," she said in her testimony. "Recalled cars endanger the lives of everyone who shares the roads -- not only the people who are riding in them."

The final version of the law passed last year as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015, which Pres. Obama signed into law in December. It exempts rental fleets with 35 or fewer cars, a compromise Houck said was made in order to gain passage. "We had to concede because our original version was 10 cars or more," she said.

Houck said her work is still not done, and she'll continue advocating to fix flaws in automotive and other product recall systems.

"I feel we've won a huge battle, but we haven't quite won the war," she said. "And the war is for corporations to take responsibility in any kind of situation where you have a recalled product and that recalled product causes injury."

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